Women in Iran have faces. I have heard that they might not; people say ‘burqa’ and ‘Saudi.’ Isn’t that where the women are anonymous streams of cloth, trailing scent and children? Media stories about nuclear weapons and political prisoners have stock images of humped black igloos, stolen glimpses of cheeks and boots. It is true that Iran has political prisoners, but these pictures miss everything. They do not show the wet eyes and laughing tongues; or the utter joy Iranian women take in colour, their lemon laces and stippled candy nails.
Diana is an actress, 28 years old. She moves like a bullet, the heels of her feet hardly touching the ground. Designer sunglasses click at her nose and she is always pop-colour, Lichtenstein-perfect in white denim and red lipstick, geometric lines on her weeping willow eyes. She has also had a nose job that has taken all the edges out of her face; she is incredibly open about this, and laughs as she counts her friends who have had surgery.
‘Everyone! All of them!’ she says merrily.
Diana drives with gloves on and, like most Iranian drivers, terrorises her passengers by seizing any opportunity to accelerate through the crunching traffic. She is on her way to a rehearsal for a production of Macbeth and is even more energetic than usual. The suffocation of driving through Tehran on a summer’s day is something that I will never forget; the hard glitter of the pavement in heat, the soupy waves of exhaust fumes.
Diana buys big plastic bottles of a nuclear blue energy drink and throws them onto the burning leather of the back seat. We stop for lunch in a sweet café inside a mall and she orders hot dogs slick with orange cheese. Groups of friends talk over enormous spray-topped milkshakes and pick at the flaky rims of mustard bottles. The penchant for American dining is ironic given the billboards that flank the streets screaming DEATH TO AMERICA- it seems strange that a café in Tehran can even get away with calling something ‘US-Style.’
America though, is the epitome of foreignness, and foreign always seems classy. I suspect the spate of scooped-out noses comes from the same place, that it is indicative of a rebellious rite of passage for sharp young women fast outgrowing the confines of their country. The women I meet are not fed on government lines; they are critical of American policy but there is no talk of good and evil. Mostly they are eager to taste and engage with the rest of the world in all its moods, and one of the ways they show their rejection of religious extremism is through excessive adornment of their bodies. They pencil on big lips, and stick gluey lashes to faces golden with powder.
Diana runs up the stairs to the rehearsal room, her feet clattering in spirals above my head. In the stairwell there are posters and cards of upcoming productions forming an unnerving wall of faces- a pierced ear, a gem-hard nose, stubble cut through by painted prison bars. The poster for Macbeth shows three women clustered on a step with moss coloured veils and blackened gazes, the bones of their jaws thrust forward. They look strong and watchful, androgynous in their complexity.
The girls in the top room wear dark turbans around their heads and their movements are light and delicate, like spiders. There is low music and I am hypnotised as I watch them dance and murmur, flexing and stretching their limbs through the dust motes. I watch the testing of their bodies, the swell of muscle in the thighs, the windmilling motion of pale arms. This is what the West misses about Iran- that you can see individual limbs and lips. Diana wears a skirt under her manteaux and her calves spring from underneath in bursting motions so she can run very fast. This is not Afghanistan: women are not erased or crippled. They are allowed to have their bodies, if they are good.
Later we go to a birthday party. One of Diana’s friends has a baby that has turned one, and grandparents and balloons swarm around a messy room. The hosts are in their early thirties, Dutch-educated with a spilling bookshelf and perfect clipped English. Apart from the grandmas, there are two women milling around in this room who do not look like they have had surgery. I am absolutely shocked by the sheer scale of the thing. Everywhere these identical concave noses, pumped up lips, cheeks bloated with silicone. A woman in a slashed white t-shirt and designer jeans has a rich husband who works in Canada, and everything about her body looks stretched and painful. When she sits next to me she is gentle and softly spoken.
Diana tells me that Iranians have higher IQs than any other nationality. She points out various people in the room and heaps accolades on them: ‘she is the most famous actress in Iran… he is the most respected writer in the country… she is the most famous director.’ Again there is this clamouring to prove - and it is true - that Iranians are not dumb believers, that they are bigger and better than their government. Indoors, the women are glossy without their hijabs, with thick reams of hennaed hair and hard rainbow nails. I point out a woman who intrigues me; she is deep in conversation, heavy featured and sexy with bare plump arms.
‘Oh, she is nobody,’ Diana says. ‘Nobody.’ Later she is referred to as ‘the fat one.’
Diana and her friends are jostling, their egos fracturing against each other. There is a race to be the smartest, the most cultured, and it can be won by having surgery, by demonstrating control over the bodies placed so cautiously in their hands. Post-surgery, women are proud not of being beautiful but of having been smart enough to change themselves. I see girls taking selfies with their noses in plaster and yellow bruises scattered around their eyes. Diana says that some women wear plasters even when they cannot afford to have the surgery. It is a short lived kind of status, but it must feel good; no longer are you the stupid girl who lazily accepted her lot. You have to fight back in Iran.
I spend a few days out of Tehran in a small town called Kashan, famous for its roses. It is a city of scent and shadows, with empty streets and fading greenish pictures of the Ayatollah everywhere. The market is filled with hideous denim, clunky plastic shoes and fake gold, and all of the women wear chadors. I remember conversations with Diana were she scorned these desert people, lumped them in with the hook noses and the mullahs. But even in this grim, holy place there are women’s faces, fierce and soft and curious and harried, rushing through the narrow market corridors like rising lanterns.
Just south of Kashan there is a tiny village called Abyaneh, where the women wear wonderful traditional costumes, fiercely defended despite government pressure. They are florid splashes in the dry landscape, with their layered skirts and long white shawls, all decorated with bold flowers and leaves. A mother invites us into the house where she lives with her children in one room. They have decorated it beautifully with rugs, clocks, flowers, and a wall hanging of a painted bride. The woman has no teeth - I picture Diana’s sneer and feel angry.
Her little girl is twelve and wears a black shawl round her hair- she is soft and tawny, serious in her socks as she brings us tea and yellow plums. I wonder what she dreams of, who she thinks is beautiful, and if she has heard of nose jobs. I hope not, and I hope that if somebody told her about them she would view them for what they are in Iran - an absolutely unnecessary cutting of young faces to keep up with an artificially imposed standard, as alien to a child as the Ayatollah’s orders. I ask if I can take a picture of her and she sits shyly next to her brother, their bony ankles touching. Behind them the tapestry bride smirks, and the sun fades the stiff fibres of her face.
Ruby Stockham is a freelance writer from Bristol, with an MA in Modern Literature. Her work has previously appeared in The Spectator.